Remembering ‘The Birdman’ of Tompkins Square Park

Dennis Leroy Edge: March 16, 1938 – September 1, 2023.

Joan Amato & Cliff Conner Oct 9, 2023

Dennis Edge and his long-lensed camera were a familiar presence in recent years in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Dennis was a passionate birder and bird photographer who became known to locals as “The Birdman” of Tompkins Square Park.

Dennis was born in New York City, but his family soon thereafter returned South. He grew up in North Carolina, attended college in Richmond, Virginia, served in the Army from Aug. 15, 1961 to Aug. 14, 1963, and received an honorable discharge. He worked as a city planner in Atlanta, Georgia, and returned to the city of his birth in 1970. In that year, he moved into an apartment on East 9th Street. He was a resident there for the last 53 years of his life, while also spending time in Larchmont, New York and North Carolina.

‘Dennis was the heart and soul of Tompkins Square Park.’

In his Atlanta years, in the 1960s, Dennis became active in the Civil Rights movement, and then in the movement against the Vietnam War. His political activism led him to become a proud socialist, which was a lifelong commitment. In New York, he designed book covers for Pathfinder Press, a socialist publisher, where he formed friendships for life. Dennis met Lois Carlo at Lord & Taylor. They worked together for two decades at Carlo Associates. They lived together for more than 40 years and were married on Dennis’s 75th birthday, March 16, 2013. They shared a lifelong interest in the environment, art and politics.

Three of Dennis’ photos.

Dennis was a man of many skills, talents, and interests. In addition to his photography, he painted beautiful gouache botanicals. He loved music — folk, jazz and classical. He was a fisherman and boater, and he worked on wooden boats and classic sports cars. He was also a certified Citizen Pruner who volunteered to care for New York City’s trees.

But Dennis’s passionate love of nature was most artistically expressed through his bird photography. His legacy to birds and birders is beautifully preserved by a collection of his bird photos entitled Tompkins Square Park Birds, published in 2023, just weeks before he passed away. As Dennis explained, “When I began photographing birds in this ten-and-a-half-acre city park, I never thought there would be enough species to make a book.” But over a span of ten years, he photographed 108 native and non-native species in and around Tompkins Square Park.

One of Dennis’s birding colleagues, Anne Lazarus, described how Dennis was perceived by those who knew him best: “Dennis was the heart and soul of Tompkins Square Park.” When Tompkins Square Park Birds was published, Anne wrote to him to express her appreciation: “You have immortalized this charming park. This book is an inspiration to others to love and protect nature.” It will, she added, “encourage people to explore their little patches. Magic and surprises are everywhere.” Following Dennis’s passing, Anne said, “Dennis influenced many people in Tompkins Square Park to become birders.”

And with regard to the impact his book will have: “Just show this book to someone, and you will have a birder.”

Another long-time Tompkins Square denizen, Florence Marcisak, recalled Dennis’s influence:

I wouldn’t have even known we had the variety of warblers, thrushes, flycatchers, songbirds and raptors in our park if it weren’t for seeing Dennis on a regular basis with his camera. And he was so kind when I and others would stop him to ask what he was photographing, and to talk about the birds migrating through our little park. I had no idea! All the beauty I was missing. . . . He really started a movement toward wildlife appreciation in our park.

Another testimonial to Dennis’s place in local history was offered by Jeffrey Rabkin:

Dennis was a pioneer. Before any of the other Tompkins Square birders were traipsing around the park, Dennis was forging his reputation as the neighborhood’s “birdman,” always happy to answer people’s questions about nature. Dennis attracted a cadre of local birdwatchers, who still follow in his Footsteps.

Dennis is survived by his wife Lois, who wrote in memorial: “Birding with Dennis was one of the joys of my life. Godspeed, my darling, I will look for you in the stars and the wildflowers.” Dennis is also survived by his devoted niece, Joan; in North Carolina, by his sister Faye Oxendine, her husband, Teddy and their son, Terry.

A special memorial tribute to Dennis Edge will be broadcast on WBAI-99.5 FM Tuesday, Oct. 10 at 11 a.m. The show will be co-hosted by Michael Steven Smith of Law & Disorder and Ken Gale of Eco-Logic. Folk musician Eli Smith will play several songs.

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